Friday, October 28, 2016

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

Man on the Flying Trapeze is a delightful 1935 W.C. Fields comedy from Paramount. Any W.C. Fields movie is a treat and this one is particularly good.

Fields could play shady characters with a great deal of aplomb but he was equally good as sorely set-upon losers. In this film he’s henpecked husband Ambrose Wolfinger. His life has been an endless series of disappointments and indignities since his ill-advised second marriage to Leona (Kathleen Howard). He only married her for the sake of his daughter Hope (Mary Brian) but the marriage was a very unfortunate mistake. Leona is the wife from Hell and her mother, Mrs Neselrode (who lives with them), is an even worse horror. Mrs Neselrode hates Ambrose with a burning passion and devotes her life to making him as miserable as she possibly can. Completing Ambrose’s catalogue of woes is his smarmy, vindictive layabout brother-in-law Claude who also lives with them.

Ambrose is a memory expert working for a film of woolen merchants. His job is to collate information on the firm’s clients and to feed this information to the notoriously forgetful Mr Malloy (Oscar Apfel).

On this particular day all Ambrose wants to do is to go to a wrestling match. He has a ticket for a front-row seat but somehow he has to persuade Mr Malloy to give him the afternoon off. He manages this by telling Malloy that his mother-in-law Mrs Neselrode has passed away and that he has to attend the funeral. It’s a rather innocent deception, especially given that he hasn’t taken a day off in the twenty-five years he’s worked for the company. An innocent deception it might be but fate will conspire to make him pay for it, and make him pay over and over again. Every possible misfortune that could occur does occur for poor Ambrose.

The day had already started badly, as we see in the film’s inspired opening sequence, with burglars singing in the cellar. This sets up a series of gags that are milked to the limit but still manage to keep on getting funnier.

This is pretty much the way this film works. It’s a series of lengthy extended comic routines, extended so much that they might easily have run out of steam without a comic genius like Fields with the ability to find and exploit to the maximum every possible opportunity to keep the laughs coming. The fact that Fields is equally brilliant at verbal and physical humour also helps.

Ambrose Wolfinger’s life is such a series of disasters that the danger here is that the movie could end up being more sad than funny. That danger is neatly avoided by Fields. Every insult that life throws at Ambrose is shrugged off. His response to misfortune is sublime indifference. He’s not really a loser because he refuses to even notice, much less acknowledge, defeat. And of course we suspect that eventually his luck will change, as it does.

Fields is at the absolute top of his game here. He gets some fine support from the rest of the cast. Grady Sutton is particularly effective as the oily sponger Claude.

As usual Fields takes his co-writing credit under an assumed name, in this case Charles Bogle. While Clyde Bruckman gets the directing credit Fields apparently took over the directing of the film midway through.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is not quite as screamingly funny as Fields’ later masterpiece The Bank Dick nor does it have the magnificently surreal quality of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break but it’s still a consistently very funny movie.

Man on the Flying Trapeze is included in the Region 2 17-movie W. C. Fields Collection boxed set - a superb set that offers outstanding value for money. The transfer is extremely good.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Charlie Chan in City in Darkness (1939)

Charlie Chan in City in Darkness was the fourth of the 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan movies made after Sidney Toler took over the role from Warner Oland. It was released towards the end of 1939.

The movie opens in Paris in September 1938, with Europe in crisis over Czechoslovakia. The city is in a state of high anxiety with war expected to break out at any moment. Charlie Chan has been attending a reunion of intelligence officers from the Great War. He soon finds himself assisting in a murder investigation. The Prefect of Police is busy with the preparations for war so the case is left in the hands of his bumbling protégé Marcel (Harold Huber) and he will needs as much help as he can get from Charlie.

The murder is connected with a conspiracy by foreign agents to ship arms to the enemies of France. The convoluted (and almost incomprehensible) plot also involves a young man falsely accused of embezzlement and the efforts of his wife Marie (Lynn Bari) to get him out of the country. There’s a great deal of aimless running about and a sad lack of any real detective work.

Charlie Chan is relegated almost to the status of a minor character with Harold Huber’s character taking centre stage. That’s the movie’s first big problem since Marcel is one of the most irritating and least funny comic characters in cinema history.

The second major problem is that this is essentially a wartime propaganda movie (it was released shortly after the actual outbreak of war in 1939) and this is a genre that I dislike intensely. The whole thing is, like most propaganda movies, preachy and heavy-handed. 

It’s also, considering the fact that it deals with espionage, surprisingly dull. The plot is too contrived to work as a mystery and too clumsy to work as a thriller.

Setting the movie against the background of the Czechoslovakian crisis might have been interesting but there’s way too much leaden comedy to allow for any real tension.

It all ends with Charlie delivering a patriotic speech, always a bad way to end a movie.

Sidney Toler was a fine Charlie Chan but he seems unusually subdued here. I can’t help wondering if he was somewhat resentful that Charlie Chan was being pushed into the shadows and decided to just concentrate on thinking about his pay cheque.

Lynn Bari, a rather underrated actress, is one of the few good things in the film. The other supporting players are mostly adequate.

None of Charlie’s sons appear in this one which unfortunately contributes even further to the film’s lack of a genuine Charlie Chan movie feel.

Herbert I. Leeds directs, with a notable lack of either energy or inspiration. 

The DVD includes a number of extras and they’re as disappointing as the movie itself. There’s a mini-documentary on the making of the movie that tells us nothing about the making of the movie but mostly focuses on giving us some trite and rather historically inaccurate historical background. The transfer is at least reasonably good.

This is one of the worst of all the Charlie Chan movies. Even if you’re a keen Charlie Chan fan you should do your best to avoid this one.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Teckman Mystery (1954)

The Teckman Mystery is a 1954 British crime thriller with a hint of espionage as well.

Philip Chance (John Justin) is a novelist who is being pressured by his publisher Maurice MIller (Raymond Huntley) to try his hand at writing a biography. The subject Maurice has in mind is test pilot Martin Teckman who was killed six months earlier when a highly advanced experimental aircraft disintegrated in midair. While this might sound like an interesting project to many writers Philip is not interested at all. Or at least he is not interested until he remembers meeting Teckman’s sister on a plane. Helen Teckman is young, attractive and vivacious and in researching her brother’s life he’s likely to have to spend some time with her. So maybe the biography is not such a bad idea after all.

Curiously enough another writer had been offered the assignment to write the biography but she was badly injured in a car accident immediately after accepting the offer.

It seems that certain people are rather anxious to stop Philip Chance from writing this book as well. When one of Martin Teckman’s former colleagues winds up dead in Philip’s flat the biography starts to sound like a surprisingly perilous undertaking.

There are plenty of plot twists in store as Philip finds himself drawn into a drama that involves subversive political organisations and foreign powers. Philip is too deeply involved to back out now and in any case he thinks that Helen Teckman is in danger and he’s determined to save her.

Philip is happy enough to bring the police into the matter but there seem to be other agencies interested as well, probably from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Philip will find himself being used as bait to bring some of these parties into the open, a rather risky proposition as several people have already been killed as a result of prying into the Teckman mystery.

Francis Durbridge co-wrote the screenplay and anything Durbridge was mixed up in is generally going to be pretty entertaining. This is no exception. Wendy Toye directed. She had a fairly brief career as a director but she handles matters competently enough in this film.

Durbridge liked to make his heroes (such as his most famous creation, Paul Temple) crime writers so it’s no surprise that the hero here is a writer. While Paul Temple is a keen amateur sleuth Philip Chance is a more reluctant hero. This story belongs firmly to the sub-genre in which some poor chump gets mixed up in something horribly dangerous and his survival then depends of seeing it through.

The acting helps a good deal. John Justin as Philip is a charming enough hero although in truth he’s a fairly unheroic hero. He’s hopelessly out of his depth but he’s persistent and he means well. Margaret Leighton has a slightly odd but intriguing manner which makes Helen seem just a little exotic, which works quite well.

There’s the usual array of fine character actors in supporting parts. Roland Culver is good as always as Major Harris, who might give the impression of being a policeman but is obviously Special Branch or more probably MI5. Raymond Huntley (who plays Philip’s publisher) is one of those familiar cinematic faces one can never put a name to but who always give reliable performances. George Coulouris is fun as the dipsomaniac former aircraft designer who gives Philip the first clue to Teckman’s vanishing act.

Network’s Region 2 DVD offers an excellent transfer, with not much in the way of extras, at a reasonable price.

The Teckman Mystery is a well-crafted and enjoyable spy thriller even if the plot is a little over-complicated at times. Margaret Leighton’s performance is the highlight. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The War Lord (1965)

The War Lord marked a new departure for historical costume epics. This 1965 Universal production starring Charlton Heston took a much grittier and more realistic look at the Middle Ages.

Chrysagon (Charlton Heston) is a Norman knight who has just arrived to take possession of his newly granted lands on the Normandy coast. It’s a bleak depressing place but Chrysagon doesn’t care. It’s his and that’s all that matters. His father lost all his lands, having been captured and forced to sell everything he had to pay the ransom. Chrysagon has served the Duke of Normandy well and his new lands are his reward. If he holds them successfully he may perhaps eventually be given a more attractive reward.

He soon makes a very disturbing discovery. Christianity has not much headway here. The people are still firmly in the grip of pagan superstitions. Chrysagon, who is a reasonably devout Christian, does not approve.

He has other problems. His lands are subject to regular sea-borne raids from Frisians. Protecting his new possessions and his people will present serious challenges. 

Chrysagon is determined to treat the locals fairly and kindly. Unfortunately another problem presents itself. He has become obsessed with a girl from the nearby village, Bronwyn (Rosemary Forsyth). Bronwyn is betrothed to the son of the village headman. 

At this point the film, sadly, resorts to the hoary old myth of the droit de seigneur - the supposed right of a feudal lord to have sex with a girl on her wedding night. There is no evidence that any such right existed in medieval Europe but I guess it makes a good story. In fairness the film does explain this right as a pagan custom and does point out that the Church firmly opposes it.

In any case Chrysagon is determined to avail himself of this right. He does however only intend to do so if Bronwyn is willing. In fact Bronwyn is very willing indeed. She has fallen in love with him, as he has with her. The villagers are perfectly happy about the arrangement as long as it is for one night only after which she will return to her husband. Bronwn has no intention of doing so and Chrysagon has no intention of giving her up. This not only precipitates a revolt - the villagers ally themselves with the Frisians and Chrysagon now has a full-scale war on his hands.

There is yet another complication. Chrysagon’s Normans captured a young Frisian boy after defeating an earlier raid. The boy is the son of the Frisian prince and the Frisians want him back. Chrysagon’s small force of Normans, ensconced in their forbidding but not very defensible tower, will now have to withstand a determined siege. Chrysagon also has problems with his ambitious younger brother Draco (Guy Stockwell).

The movie devotes a great deal of time to the Chrysagon-Bronwyn love story but luckily there’s also plenty of time for some marvellous action sequences. The Frisians come up with some very impressive-looking siege engines which provide exciting battle scenes as the Normans have to try to destroy these siege engines before the Frisians are able to use them to destroy Chrysagon’s tower.

Visually this film offers superb spectacle as well as atmosphere. The War Lord is a long way from the romanticised idealised vision of the MIddle Ages seen in earlier Hollywood epics such as The Knights of the Round Table (although it’s not quite as gloomy or as squalid as many later period films). One thing I certainly appreciated is that these Norman knights actually look like Norman knights of around the 11th century - they aren’t wearing the anachronistic 15th century full plate armour that appears in virtually every earlier Hollywood film about the Middle Ages.

Charlton Heston gives one of the best performances of his career as the complex and haunted Chrysagon - he’s just as good as he was in Anthony Mann’s magnificent El Cid a few years earlier. Rosemary Forsyth is adequate but rather insipid. Richard Boone is splendid as Chrysagon’s faithful retainer Bors. Guy Stockwell is suitably cynical as the untrustworthy Draco. It’s great to see the underrated Henry Wilcoxon, the star of so many of Cecil B. DeMille’s epics, giving a fine spirited performance as the Frisian prince.

Eureka’s Region DVD is barebones but offers a pretty satisfactory transfer in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I believe there is now a Blu-Ray release.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner was trying to make an emotionally nuanced and intelligent costume epic and he succeeds fairly well. He certainly handles the action scenes with a great deal of confidence and gusto. The War Lord might be more pessimistic and morally ambiguous than most previous films of its type but thankfully it doesn’t succumb entirely to the fashionable nihilism of the 60s. Highly recommended and Charlton Heston’s performance is a very major plus. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Underworld Story (1950)

The Underworld Story is a 1950 crime thriller directed by Cy Endfield. Some people regard this as a film noir although I have no idea why. It’s more of an overheated melodrama.

Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) is a newspaper reporter with a bad reputation (and to get a bad reputation in that line of business you really have to work hard at it). His links with gangster  Carl Durham (Howard Da Silva) eventually get him fired. He finds he can’t get a job as a reporter anywhere in the city. In desperation he buys a half interest in a small town newspaper. His new partner is Cathy Harris (Gale Storm).

Cathy quickly finds out just what a louse Mike Reese is. She’s just about to give him his marching orders when the biggest story in the Lakeville Sentinel’s history breaks. The daughter-in-law of fabulously wealthy press mogul E.J. Stanton (Herbert Marshall) has just been murdered, in Lakeville! Mike manages to persuade Cathy that this is a story that she has to let him run with.

We know from the start that Diane Stanton was murdered by her disturbed and neurotic husband Clark Stanton (Gar Moore). Clark however has no trouble persuading his father to cover up the crime for him. As luck would have it Diane’s black maid Molly (Mary Anderson) vanished at the time of the murder so it’s easy to pin the murder on her.

Mike now sees his chance. He decides to use the Sentinel to crusade on Molly’s behalf, having discovered that the nice warm friendly people of Lakeville all like her and believe she is probably innocent. Mike launches a fund to raise money to pay a hot-shot trial lawyer to defend her.

In fact Mike is simply using the case for his own purposes, to boost the Sentinel’s circulation and to line his own pockets. He and the shady lawyer intend to split the money fifty-fifty.

Then E.J. Stanton goes into action, turning the townspeople against Mike’s campaign and threatening the Sentinel’s survival. It now turns out that the nice warm friendly people of Lakeville were actually hate-filled bigots all along and they turn against Molly completely.

By this time it has been established that Mike Reese is a lying conniving crooked journalist who would sell his own mother for a story. And now, suddenly and for no reason whatsoever, he magically turns into a genuine crusading journalist who cares only for truth and justice.

This is an all-too-typical feature of the ham-fisted screenplay by Henry Blankfort. Nothing seems to matter except using the film as an excuse for some very heavy-handed preaching. The characters are threadbare caricatures whose personalities can be entirely reversed in a heartbeat. The plot is melodramatic and emotionally manipulative.

The acting is mostly poor. Gar Moore is quite embarrassing as Clark Stanton. He didn’t have much of a career and it’s easy to see why. Gale Storm is harmless enough.Herbert Marshall tries hard but it’s obvious he doesn’t believe in the character he’s playing.

Dan Duryea tries to save the movie with a typically energetic performance combining sleaziness and breeziness and he is at least entertaining to watch. The fact that his character isn’t convincing is the fault of the screenwriter, not Duryea.

This is a great movie to watch if you enjoy movies about evil cigar-chomping rich people persecuting  the poor oppressed masses. The evil rich people are of course all degenerate as well as evil. You get some half-baked Freudianism as well.

On the plus side there’s some great noirish cinematography in the early sections. The opening sequence is superbly done.

I caught The Underworld Story on cable. It’s available on made-on-demand DVD in the Warner Archive series but I wouldn’t recommend buying this one unless you’re a very keen Dan Duryea completist.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Assassin for Hire (1951)

Assassin for Hire, released in 1951, is yet another cheap but surprisingly good crime B-feature from Britain’s Merton Park Studios.

Antonio Riccardi (Sydney Tafler) is a dealer in rare stamps but he actually makes his living as a hitman. He’s also devoted to his family. He loves his wife Maria (Katharine Blake) but most of all he’s devoted to his younger brother Giuseppe (John Hewer). Giuseppe is a promising violinist. To honour a promise to their dying mother six years earlier Antonio is determined to make sure that Giuseppe has a glittering musical career. That’s something that will cost a lot of cash but Antonio makes plenty of money as a professional assassin so that’s no problem.

Antonio has carried out a series of daring and successful hits. Detective Inspector Carson of Scotland Yard (Ronald Howard) knows all about Antonio but so far it has been impossible to build a case against him. Antonio always has a watertight alibi. Carson knows the alibis are phony but he has been unable to break them - Antonio has loyal friends and their loyalty is further encouraged by generous cash payments.

All Inspector Carson can do is wait and hope that Antonio will make a mistake (and Carson is a very patient man). Antonio does make a mistake, and it’s a particularly tragic mistake. It might be the break that Carson has been waiting for.

The screenplay (by Rex Rienits) is not overly complicated but it does have a powerful and effective twist to it (well actually more than one twist). Michael McCarthy’s career as a director was not exactly glittering but he proves himself to be more than capable of making a taut and emotionally satisfying crime thriller on a very low budget.

There’s a definite hint of film noir to this movie. There are some good noirish night scenes and the overall look of the production is quite noirish (lots of trench-coats and similar touches). Maybe Antonio is not a typical noir protagonist - he is after all a cold-blooded killer. On the other hand he has a human and sensitive side. The story does have the element of fate leading a man remorselessly towards his doom.

This movie is an object lesson in low-budget movie-making. If you have a good story and good actors you really don’t need much else. You can get all the atmosphere you need without expensive sets or elaborate visual set-pieces. The very short running time (67 minutes) means there’s no time for unnecessary sub-plots - you have to get on with the story and that’s the approach taken here and it works.

Leading roles in cheap B-movies was as far as Sydney Tafler’s career ever progressed but  he was a fine actor who has never received his due. He’s very impressive here. Tafler would give another excellent performance a year later in the very underrated Wide Boy.

Ronald Howard gives another variation on his standard likeable police inspector performance. Inspector Carson is a quiet, gentle, unassuming man but he’s a deceptively good cop. He has patience and he has doggedness and he knows his job.

The supporting players all give solid effective performances with Ian Wallace being especially good as Antonio’s buddy Charlie.

Network’s Region 2 DVD is absolutely barebones but it’s inexpensive and the transfer is flawless.

Assassin for Hire is a fine low-key very British crime thriller with strong film noir affinities and a superb central performance by Sydney Tafler. It’s no masterpiece but if you’re a fan of B-movies you should plenty here to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Secret Mission (1942)

Secret Mission is a 1942 British wartime spy thriller. It features a good cast but it has a few problems.

A team of British agents is landed on the coast of occupied France. Another British agent had been sent earlier but nothing has been heard of him since.

The team comprises Major Garnett (Hugh Williams), Captain Red Gowan (Roland Culver), Private Nobby Clark (Michael Wilding) and a Free French officer, Raoul de Carnot (James Mason doing a very exaggerated French accent).

Eventually the British spies talk their way into the German command headquarters and get lots of photographs of maps showing German troop dispositions. Meanwhile domestic dramas are starting to arise. The village chosen for the operation was chosen because both Raoul and Nobby Clark used to live there. Raoul’s sister Michèle (Carla Lehmann) and Nobby’s wife Lulu (Betty Warren) still live there. And they don’t want their menfolk to go back to England.

Of course they must go back and do their duty and stuff upper lips are called for and all that sort of thing.

The major problem with this film is the lack of any sense of urgency or drama. The secret mission seems very vague and doesn’t seem to be overly dangerous, and we can’t help wondering if it was really important enough to justify landing a whole team of spies.

There’s a lot of time devoted to the domestic dramas and to the romantic sub-plot and also to comic relief. Too much time in fact and the movie drags quite a bit. When the action sequences do come they’re not terribly exciting.

Director Harold French just doesn’t manage to generate any real feeling of suspense or excitement.

As the release date would suggest this is very much a propaganda film. The British spies are all terribly brave and noble. The Germans are either cruel sadists or fools. Mostly they’re portrayed as fools. Amusingly their most sadistic action is to have an armoured car driving through the village playing Wagner very loudly through a loudspeaker. The French are all very brave and very patriotic and are united by a passionate desire for freedom.

There is one interesting element though and that’s Michèle de Carnot’s equivocal
attitude towards the British spies. She says that since France has signed an armistice with Germany the activities of the Resistance are quite illegal (and she has a point) and are causing needless suffering to the civilian population. In fact she’d prefer the British spies to leave at once. On the other hand she is devoted to Raoul, she does dislike the German occupation and she has taken a shine to Major Garnett. Throughout the movie she wavers between her disapproval of spies and her attraction to the handsome English spy.

The acting is at best adequate. This was one of James Mason’s early roles before he found stardom. I imagine that in later life he must have been horribly embarrassed by his cartoonish performance in this movie. Hugh Williams lacks the charisma needed for his role as the principal hero. Michael Wilding is there mainly for comic relief purposes which he performs well enough. Carla Lehmann as Michèle has by far the most interesting role and she plays it pretty well.

This is a movie that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a thriller or a comic romp. It doesn’t completely succeed in either objective. The pacing is poor and the screenplay is vague and meandering. The end result is a thriller that falls rather flat. Maybe the idea was to raise morale by portraying the Germans as a bunch of incompetent oafs.

On the plus side the German secret headquarters is fairly spectacular and the ancient armoured car that blasts Wagner at the unfortunate French population is quite amusing.

This movie is available on DVD in Region 2 and Region 4 - I’m not sure of the situation in Region 1. The Region 4 DVD is barebones and the transfer is not particularly great.

Secret Mission has some mildly amusing moments but on the whole it’s dull and stodgy and unfortunately lacking in excitement or tension. I can’t recommend this one.